Why Martyrs?

Lying: for Fun or Profit?
Once upon a time there was a little boy, apprentice to a shepherd, who lived in a small village. One day his mentor told him he was old enough to tend to the flocks alone. The boy was given a staff and instructions that if a wolf approached the flocks, he should shout out long and loud “Wolf! Wolf!” so that the villagers would know he was in trouble and rush to his aid with pitchforks and axes. But, the boy was warned, this was nothing to take lightly. It was important that such an alarm be raised only in the event of real danger—only upon seeing an approaching wolf.

Do you remember the rest of the story? The shepherd boy thought it would be quite funny to upset the town into chaos and watch the population scurry about excited and scared, running to his aid. And he exercised his new power by calling out “Wolf! Wolf!” in the absence of any real danger—much to the anger of the villagers. In the end, when the real wolf approached, no one answered the boy’s cries as the wolves stalked into the flock and killed the sheep.

The main moral to the story has always been that if you lie, people lose trust in your integrity—which could cost you later, when you need their help and trust. But there is something else to be learned. This is an old story. It’s so old that we can’t really say who came up with it. Certainly the “wolf” in the story is undeniably reminiscent of old European tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. But who knows?

Why did the boy lie? We all know what he lost—but we’ve grown so used to the tale that we’ve forgotten to ask the other central question: What did he gain? Before you read on, seriously, consider this question. On what level does the boy’s lie make sense? What did the boy gain? What was his motivation to lie? Does anyone really ever ask this when they remember this story?

To put it simply, it was fun for the boy to lie. It amused him to think that the villagers could be controlled by a word from his mouth—fooled by a simple shout: “Wolf!” An entire audience at his beck and call. So alluring to his mind, he couldn’t wait to test it out.

What I’d like to call out, though, is that in this old story we have an example of a general understanding of something we sometimes forget: Sometimes people don’t need a material motive or benefit to lie. Sometimes, psychologically speaking, lying is it’s own reward. When the boy lied he exercised control of others and amused himself. Why, when we hear this story, do we not respond, “But I don’t understand—why did the shepherd think the boy would lie—and so warn him not to do so? And why did the boy lie? The story makes no sense.” Nobody says this, because the story does make sense. The boy’s lie makes sense. We have no material benefit, but we totally understand the boy’s motive to lie.

We know that people sometimes lie for “no good reason.” Some people like to lie. Some people like to cause chaos. Some people like the idea of controlling others and being the focus of attention—having that small power over others. And we understand that.

In fact, as Munchausen by Proxy demonstrates, some people will kill their own children, lying all the while by claiming the kid is chronically ill, to get that sort of attention.

These are people who are married, who have jobs, who may be surrounded by friends and family who think they’re caring parents. But deep in their brains, these people are very, very needy—beyond anything I, and hopefully you, can imagine. They have a deep need for attention that overrides everything else—even parental instincts to protect their own children.

They don’t need a large audience, either. The Munchausen crowd usually only has immediate friends and family and some hospital staff at their disposal. Maybe a name in the paper if they’re caught. Just like the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!,” it’s extremely localized attention—but worth their child’s life. All it takes is someone to listen to them—to pay attention to them. And infamy works just as well as fame to fill this emotional void.

Consider the Salem Witch Trials. A handful of girls become the focus of a small community’s attention when they feign fits and attacks by local “witches”—knowingly responsible for the torture and executions of a dozen or so innocent friends and neighbors. And for what? For a game of “let’s pretend,” where the girls get to be the center of attention? Where the village listened to them—paid undivided attention to their every word? It must have been intoxicating—all eyes on them, waiting, breathlessly, for their next tale of terror—waiting to see who would be accused next of flying through the air, consorting with feline familiars or having sex with demons.

People who lie for attention will kill their own children. People who lie for attention don’t care if their lies cause harm and death to others. People who lie for attention don’t care if it’s just a handful of people giving it to them. People who lie for attention can be your next door neighbor. They’re among us. They’re not all locked in asylums somewhere. They function as working parts of our society. However “abnormal” they may be deep in their brains, they are “normal” enough to be socially integrated until, and unless, they are eventually discovered when they cross a legal line.

The Claim: “Nobody Would Die for a Lie”
Christian apologist Josh McDowell’s book More Than Just a Carpenter, so it’s stated online, has a chapter titled “Who Would Die for a Lie?” If you’re not familiar with this theist argument, here are a few theists explaining it. I like to let Christians speak for themselves when it comes to restating their claims, so I’m not later accused of building or responding to Strawmen. Emphasis throughout this article is mine.

“Nobody would die for a lie knowing that it was a lie. Many have died for a lie, but they did not realize they were dying for a lie. They thought they were dying for the truth. Fact is, all the Apostles, save John were killed for their preaching. Some were speared to death; some were killed with a sword; some were beheaded and some were beaten to death. Why is this a logical and reasonable validation of the New Testament? The answer is they had first hand knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.”
Pastor Bobby W. Leggett in the December 23, 2008, Blanco County News (TX) “Focus on Faith” section, contribution of an article titled “Is the Bible Reliable and Valid?”

If you’re like me, you may have had to read it more than once to realize he was actually arguing on behalf of the validity of scripture. You might have noticed that he rebuts himself when he begins with “Many have died for a lie, but they did not realize they were dying for a lie. They thought they were dying for the truth.” It sounds like something an atheist would say to rebut his later point—that these Christian martyrs believed these things happened, but were simply wrong. Still, his conclusion is not that a martyr’s death demonstrates their conviction, but that it demonstrates that what they were convicted of is true. See his last line.

“…the greatest testament to their honesty was the fact that they were persecuted under the Roman government and died for what they believed in. People may die for the truth, but nobody would die for a lie that they conceived.”
Timothy Minich contributed his article to th
e Christian section of a site called “bigissuegrou.com.” It has an atheist section that includes religious articles actually presenting religious views.
Minich supplies an apologist’s view, above.

Just like Leggett’s claim, Minich claims that it’s impossible that anyone would die for a lie if they knew it was a lie—if they, Minich qualifies, conceived the lie themselves.

“This is one of the reasons, years ago, that I decided that the resurrection must have happened. Otherwise who would die for a lie? These were people who had a passion for the message of Christ, who were willing to take up their crosses daily to spread the word. Who goes into strange lands, traveling hot and dusty roads, with little money, into lands that are unsafe and where they could easily die a painful death, all for a lie?”
–Reverend Dr. N. Graham Standish, September 7, 2008, sermon, online at www.calvinchurchzelie.org.

Above, we can’t dismiss that the very first sentence of this theist’s claim undeniably connects the idea that if a person would die for a claim it is evidence the claim “must have happened.” As he notes, these people “could easily die a painful death”—and he cannot accept a person would be willing to risk that over a lie. He doesn’t even add the caveat that it could have been a lie they believed. But I’ll add that, myself, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s make the claims all as reasonable as possible:

If a person knows their claim is a lie—such as a claim someone made up himself—it is impossible that person would die for it.

I believe this is not only fair, but a generous interpretation of the arguments, as stated, above.

Three Giveaways
I can think of three scenarios right off the bat that defy the claim above. I am going to explain them, and then discount them as “giveaways”—and I will explain why.

Coercion 1: This would be a situation where someone who knows you is being interrogated, and they name you as someone who was running around preaching the resurrection. It is a lie. You know it is a lie. You are brought in and beaten and questioned. You, like many people today who admit to murder due to police interrogations that I will wager are not nearly as horrible as what I would expect to encounter in antiquity, tell them whatever they want to hear to get them to stop beating you. You hope for leniency, but you are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

Coercion 2: This would be identical to coercion except that you know you will be executed. You tell them what they want to hear in order to die, because they are not going to believe you were not preaching, and ultimately you will either die painfully and slowly or be more quickly executed, which you deem is preferable. You confess and are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

Protecting Someone You Love: Someone reports to the authorities that a person in your house was preaching the resurrection. You know it was your child, who is involved with the Christians. You lie and say it was you. You are arrested and executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

In any of the three situations above, somebody would, understandably, die for a lie. They would also be logged as a religious martyr, that is, someone who died for their religion. People would die for lies—even lies they knew were lies. And nobody can deny that people have offered confessions to capital crimes, under coercion, or to protect other people. Such people have been discovered and sometimes exonerated.

But, let’s overlook those demonstrated examples of people who are willing to die for lies they, themselves, have manufactured or understood were lies. Let’s overlook it because the first objection will be that martyrs were preaching the resurrection and refused to recant. So, the above only demonstrates people would die for a lie, but not that the specific Christian examples would have. Honestly, though, if all I do here is put “nobody would die for a lie they knew was a lie” to bed, or make people produce a more supportable and specific claim, I’ll have accomplished something monumental.

So, I give the theists, whether they state it or not, that they meant to offer that a person would not die for a lie without coercion or external pressure of some sort. Now we have a claim that looks more like this:

Nobody would voluntarily, and without external coercion or pressure, offer a false confession to a capital offense, knowing it was false—up to, and including, something he, himself, manufactured.

And I can’t imagine being more fair than that with this claim. I am stretching to give every benefit of reasonableness I can imagine.

My Disclaimer:
In a way I’m torn about even broaching this because some might say the best approach is to question the validity of the tales describing the martyrs. Like any ancient history—any such tale can only be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t mean, with this post, to lend undue credibility to the idea that there were actually “eye witnesses” to a resurrection, or that people who were martyred were actually martyred for refusing to deny a resurrection—versus, for social or religious persecution brought on in the same manner we see religious persecution today. You don’t have to be an eye-witness to be a martyr. And the fact someone dies for a cause doesn’t really tell me what specifically they claimed at trial and if that is the reason they were actually executed. In other words, a person might preach the resurrection, but be tortured and killed as a political subversive.

So, just to be clear, this post is not meant to address the question of whether or not there are legitimate claims of such martyr tales.

This post is only to examine whether or not it is justified to claim that “nobody” would voluntarily face death, without coercion, for a lie they knew was a lie.

As the claim is stated, using “nobody,” means a single example to the contrary, outside our three exclusions, is sufficient to render it failed. But I’m sure the apologists who issue it would want to see at least enough examples to account for multiple martyr accounts. One example will probably be insufficient to get them to lay this down. But we must keep in the front of our minds that we need not address all Christian martyrs. This claim can only be applied to a very narrow subset of historic Christian martyr claims—only those martyrs who we can reasonably claim professed to have seen the resurrection firsthand, refused to recant, and were executed specifically for refusing to recant their claim that a resurrection occurred.

I admit right off the bat that I have not researched the martyr stories. I am familiar with the death of Stephen in Acts 6-7, but the tale says he was arrested on lies against him, and, further, that his testimony that resulted in his execution was that he claimed Jesus had been murdered, not that Jesus resurrected. Just for the r
ecord, that is a very important distinction. And it means that Stephen is discounted as a person who died for the claim that Jesus resurrected.

I have no idea if there are records of early Christians dying for resurrection testimony. But at this point, it is not relevant. I’m only addressing the martyr apologetic, not examining the martyr stories: Are there people who would be willing to lie and put themselves in harm’s way, up to and including facing capital punishment, for an uncoerced absolute fabrication they created themselves?

Facing Execution for Infamy and Notoriety
The following quote is from the paper “False Confessions: Why?” (subtitled “A pathological need for attention, or blurring of reality, may underlie the phenomenon”) by Kathleen Doheny (reviewed by Louise Change, MD), found at the Willams College Psychology Department Web site (Williamstown, Mass.):

“Some false confessors have a pathological need for attention,” Saul Kassin, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says to explain confessions like [John Mark] Karr’s.

“That is what everyone is speculating in the Karr case,” he says. “The pathology is such that that need predominates. And everything else fades into the background.” Even the risk of prison or death.

“They are driven by the limelight,” adds Eric Hickey, PhD, professor of criminal psychology at California State University, Fresno, and director of the Center of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, Fresno.

Described above, we have a mind, motivated by an insatiable need for attention, very much like our shepherd boy, the Munchausen mother, and the Salem children—all of whom demonstrated that only a small audience is sufficient. But the individuals Doheny is describing, rather than harming others, are willing to accept harm to themselves, including death. Interestingly, the defense for the Munchausen patient could very well be the apologetic applied to the martyrs: “Surely, nobody would kill her own child and lie about it—just for attention?” And yet, she does. And “surely, nobody would put themselves in a situation where they’re lying and claiming to have done things that are known to result in execution?” And yet, they do.

And while even a small, immediate audience suffices for such a person, what a boon it would be to go down in history as a hero to a religious faith—still recognized for your sacrifice more than two thousand years later. If there were such Christian martyrs, could they have thought they were achieving this sort of fame at the time? Certainly history logged martyrs before Christianity. But, honestly, I couldn’t wager a guess. Suffice to say that I have no reason to doubt that their immediate fame or infamy presented sufficient audience to justify their lies and sacrifices. It is right in step with the examples of those who lie for recognition, listed earlier. In fact, in a few cases I came across in the literature, there was one for murder, and another for robbery, issued specifically to impress girlfriends—an audience of one.

These types of lies, were all the buzz right after John Mark Karr came forward in e-mails claiming to have been with JonBenet Ramsey when she died—earning himself a first degree murder charge. But there is some speculation about Karr’s confession specifically. So, I am not using Karr as a shining example.

During his time in the limelight, though, CBS News highlighted the story and made public the issue of “Voluntary False Confession” (VFC). But it wasn’t the first time the U.S. public had seen this sort of weirdness. From the numbers I came across, 200 or more of these death-wish, attention-seeking liars, living as our friends and neighbors, came forward to take credit for the tragic and historically infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in the 1930s. In a real ironic twist, the event was labeled as “the biggest story since the Resurrection,” by reporter H.L. Mencken. An event that inspired hundreds of attention-seeking liars to beg for execution is compared to the resurrection. Interesting.

In the CBS story, Alan Hirsch, a professor of legal studies at Williams College and founder of the blog The Truth About False Confessions, stated “As hard as it is to believe, there are just many, many false confessions for many reasons, and so [if] I hear that someone confessed, my reaction is not, ‘Oh, they did it.’”

As we’ve already discussed, Hirsch goes on in the story to say, “Voluntary false confessions can be motivated by a suspect’s desire for notoriety. In high profile cases, it is not rare for multiple innocent people to tell the police they are guilty.”

But lest we get too hung up on notoriety, be warned, that’s far from the only motive for a person to voluntarily tell a lie that could, realistically, get them killed.

VFC to be Heard and Imagination Inflation
Also in Doheny’s article, in talking about VFC, Hickey points out, “Other confessors are angry and want to be heard…They want a voice. They don’t feel like they have a voice.”

Hickey does not speculate this is what happened with Karr, though. He thinks it is possible Karr “wanted to be connected to JonBenet so badly. Maybe he thought about it so much he fantasized himself into believing it.” Kassin describes a situation where a person imagines an event, over and over, and becomes uncertain about whether it is real or not. In Doheny’s paper, he says, “The memory research on this is clear—it’s called imagination inflation.”

We even had a caller on the show not long ago who did this as a child. He imagined a vacation his family talked about very often. When he got older, he talked about his memories of it and was informed he hadn’t been with the family during the trip. It happens—to normal people. I know this doesn’t qualify as a “lie” in our context, but I feel compelled to note that part of religious indoctrination and ritual is repetition—to hear the stories over and over. Think: Imagination Inflation.

VFC for Thrills
But there are more recognized psychological motivations that drive otherwise socially integrated people to be willing to offer a VFC. Doheny’s paper describes something called “duping delight.” In plain terms, this is a rush some people get from lying to other people. PhD and a research psychologist Cynthia Cohen attributes eminent psychologist Paul Ekman with coining the term. Cohen adds, “In putting something over on someone, they get a thrill. It’s almost like someone who likes to do bungee jumping. Someone who has duping delight gets excitement from telling a lie and having someone believe it. Maybe they got rewarded for their tall tales in childhood. Perhaps their friends or even their parents thought the behavior was cute.”

VFC Because of Low Self-Esteem
There’s still more reasons for people to give VFC. The item below is from the chapter titled “False confessions, the Temple Murder Case, and the Tucson Four” from the book The Right to Remain Silent, by Gary L. Stewart, former editor of the Arizona Law Review:


“False confessions derive from several psychological conditions. A suspect may feel guilty about something he has done or failed to do, something completely unrelated to the crime in question.”

Stewart talks about the frequency of such confessions as well:

The frequency of false confessions is a vigorously debated question in the legal world. An even more complicated question arises in trying to determine how many wrongful convictions are based on false confessions. Estimates range from a low of 35 to a high of 840 annually.

Bear in mind that a false confession is not necessarily a VFC. There is a difference. But also keep in mind the Lindbergh case, alone, inspired around 200 immediate VFCs. People continue to confess to the still unsolved Black Dahlia murder. And some, like convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas, keep confessing to murder after murder in which they had no involvement whatsoever.

While I’d like to think we wouldn’t actually convict such a person, the truth is we only know about the ones we know about. If any have been executed, we have no way to know that short of an extremely unlikely post-mortem exoneration. All I intend to offer here is that, based on what we know about reality, it is not unreasonable to reject the claim that “nobody” would, voluntarily, die for a lie, if he knew it was a lie.

More About Guilt
The guilt complex motive was one that interested me immediately, since Christianity and guilt have a well-known and often humorously portrayed love-affair dating back to its Hebrew religious roots, but amplified with the resurrection story. Anyone would be hard pressed to try and claim that people who feel unworthy aren’t drawn like files to a religion that preaches redemption that one cannot access through one’s own worth. A religion that specifically reinforces a reality that all humans are wretched would offer a great deal of appeal, in the form of relation and identity, to someone with deep-seated self-esteem problems.

Someone recently referred to this as the “I am the Universe” fallacy on our tv list. The idea is that however I feel, whatever I think, whatever I would do, it’s the same for everyone. It’s not a rare perspective to exhibit. And I do get the irony of my next comment which is to say I can’t imagine that anyone hasn’t made this mistake at least once in their life. You generally get a heaping helping of reality slapped onto your plate after you make such a universal assumption, and find yourself corrected by someone who isn’t exactly like you. A mild example would be that you buy a chocolate cake for a dinner party, plop it down on the table and say, “Doesn’t everyone love to eat chocolate cake?!” The hostess replies, “I’m afraid I’m allergic to chocolate,” and you have a Eureka! moment where you realize that you are, in fact, not the universe, and probably should not have presumed something about others, without checking.

But if I’m riddled with self-esteem issues that I can’t free myself from, how could I even imagine a person without such issues? The fact is, someone who is motivated by jealousy will assume that they can make others jealous (that we all suffer that same fault). We think “this would motivate me, so it should motivate you.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. But if I am horribly insecure and can’t imagine what it’s like to be secure, odds are I will suspect the world, like me, is also insecure. And the religion that says, “Don’t we all realize, deep down, that we’re just not good enough, that we need a savior?” will reach into my brain and light me up like Christmas. It will speak to me and echo my self-imposed, delusional reality. And it will ring true—for me.

The guilt motivation for a VFC—a way of punishing myself—fits Christian martyrdom like a glove. If I think I’m a wretch who deserves hell fire, and that I killed the uniquely good messiah with my wickedness, then paying with my life while I witness to god would be the most glorious death imaginable.

Would a Christian saint lie, though? Someone so devoted to god? Absolutely, yes, if they were suffering from these issues. Good Christians have lied without gaining notoriety, redemption, or a rush. Every scribe that ever doctored a canon text to make it a little more orthodox is guilty of lying for the cause of Christianity. I’m sure they were aware it was dishonest. But a higher cause, a nobler goal was prompting them. The texts were revised. We have the notes in our Bibles today describing which passages have been added or altered from older or better manuscripts. Quotes were “fixed.” Characters were made more consistent or gentler. But it was all to improve on the message—all for the greater good.

Yes, people who subscribe vehemently to a doctrine will lie and die for it—even if the doctrine promotes honesty as a virtue. It’s weirdly hypocritical and contradictory—but since when have religious zealots (or any of us, for that matter) been immune, as humans, from hypocrisy or contradiction? Aren’t these, ironically, some of the very flaws Christianity says we’re all subject to? On that note, how ironic that an apologetic would be built around the idea that a human being couldn’t possibly act in a way that makes no sense. We see it all the time. The Bible condemns us for it and calls it sin and fault. I call it being human.

Would a reasonable person die for such a lie? No. But since when are humans—even most humans—reasonable? Where in the world was that fantasy bred?

Other researchers also noted the guilt motivator in VFC. In “The Psychology of False Confessions,” Richard P. Conti, PhD, Department of Psychology, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ, writes:

“…Other possible motives for voluntary false confessions include an ‘unconscious need to expiate guilt over previous transgressions through self-punishment,’ (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985, p. 77). Gudjonsson (1992) points out that a previous transgression can be either a real or an imagined act. Gudjonsson further states that the transgression does not necessarily have to be identifiable, ‘some individuals have a high level of generalized guilt, which is not related to a specific transgression, and this may influence a range of their behaviours [sic], including their need to volunteer a false confession.’”

The Link Between Guilt and Depression
The following quotes come from psychologist, Dr. Craig Bennell’s paper “Voluntary False Confessions: An Overview.” Among other things, this paper explains that the guilt that drives some people is actually part of depression—a very common psychological disorder that afflicts huge numbers of people:

“In cases where severely depressed individuals falsely confess, the confession is viewed as an attempt by the individual to relieve intense feelings of guilt. It is proposed that the guilt is generated by past events and experiences and is projected onto some external event [eg. a crime] which becomes the focus for the patients guilt (Gudjonsson, 1992, p. 241). To relieve this guilt, it follows that the individual is motivated to seek out some kind of punishment. In the case of falsely confessing to a crime
they did not commit, this punishment comes via fines, prison sentences,
even death. These individuals seem to believe that once they confess to their
misdeeds and are publicly punished, their guilt will finally cease (Gudjonsson, 1992).”

“It has been proposed, in cases of personality disordered individuals, that the false confession is motivated by a need to enhance an important psychological need, commonly one s self-esteem (Gudjonsson, 1992). Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) suggest that ‘the individual has a pathological need to become infamous, even if it means having to face the prospect of punishment…’

“Certainly, in cases of voluntary false confessions where the confessor is clearly disturbed, perhaps even confessing to crimes that do not exist (Gudjonsson, 1992), the task of assessing the legitimacy of their confession, though time consuming, would seem less complex. However, for those voluntary false confessions that are more difficult to identify, it would be beneficial to have a system for predicting which individuals were falsely confessing—herein lies the problem. For as long as false confessions have been the studied, researchers have recognized that people, including those who deal with deception on a regular basis (Ekman and O’Sullivan, 1991), are not good at detecting whether or not someone is being deceptive (Horvath et al., 1994; Kohnken, 1987). This is not to say that research hasn’t identified observable behavioral differences between ‘truth tellers’ and ‘deceivers,’ only that the ability of people to recognize these differences is not very impressive.”

I’d Know If Someone Were Lying to Me
And here Bennell hits on something really interesting. Humans are not very good at recognizing liars. Remember that CBS News story? Hirsch, during that story said, “The rule of thumb is that everybody does overreact to a confession—there tends to be an assumption that it’s true.” In fact, in my reading on this topic, I read research demonstrating that people will say they would not be influenced by a confession if they found it was coerced; but when presented with a coerced confession, as the only difference in evidence in mock trial experiments, they convict more often than they did without the confession.

People’s brains love confessions. And people’s brains don’t work well when it comes to weeding out good ones from bad ones. No wonder the martyr argument sways so many. Apparently, even if I were able to show that all the martyrs ever recorded were killed due to coerced confessions—whether we’re proud of it or not—we’d still have a lot of people arguing that the martyrs were telling the truth about a resurrection.

But even more painful than the reality that we strongly tend to believe whatever lies and delusions flow from another person’s mouth, there is an embarrassing inverse correlation between how well we tell fact from fiction versus how convinced we are that we’re good at telling fact from fiction. The following breakdown comes from a paper titled “I’d Know a False Confession if I Saw One’: A Comparative Study of College Students and Police Investigators,” by Saul M. Kassin, Christian A. Meissner, and Rebecca J. Norwick, published in Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 2, April 2005. Pay attention to the following, and don’t just let your eyes gloss over. This study asked convicted criminals to give both true confessions of their crimes and false, scripted confessions. They asked students and police investigators to review the confessions and judge whether they were true or false.

“Across participants, conditions, and items, the overall accuracy rate was 53.9%—a level of performance that is both unimpressive and nonsignificant relative to chance performance (z-test for proportions = 0.87). In signal detection terms, the hit rate (the percentage of inmates whose true confessions were correctly identified as true) was 63.6% and the false alarm rate (the percentage of inmates whose false confessions were incorrectly identified as true) was 56.1%. On a 1–10 point scale, the overall mean confidence level was 6.76. Interestingly, judgment accuracy and confidence were negatively correlated…”

In plain English, the research found that none of the subjects did very well at recognizing fact from fiction. In fact, the results were so dismal that you’d have done just as well if you didn’t hear or watch the confessions and just categorized the “true” and “false” tapes using eenee-meenee-minee-moe. Law enforcement officers felt more confident than the students that they could tell a true confession from a false one. But the students, who were less certain, judged better.

In the end it’s my guess that the martyr argument persists for the following reasons:

1. The “I am the universe fallacy.” I am not the type of person who would die for a lie. And I don’t know people who would die for a lie. Ergo, nobody would die for a lie.

Even though we can easily demonstrate that “some people would face execution for a lie” is a realistic claim, it’s simply hard to get people to accept that it’s a big world out there with a lot of diversity, especially if you’re into a religion where diversity is condemned and conformity is rewarded and constantly reinforced. Who hasn’t heard that “atheists don’t ‘not believe’ in god—they know there’s a god. They’re just being defiant”?

“I am the Universe” lives! And I don’t see “I am the Universe” going away just because I posted this article; but, I hope to have demonstrated the claim “nobody would die for a lie” can absolutely not stand unchallenged in the face of demonstrated VFCs. “Nobody would die for a lie,” is along the same lines as arguing that “no woman would stay with a man who hits her.” If I didn’t know that this actually occurs in reality, certainly I would be inclined to agree it was reasonable to assert nobody would continue to live with someone who beats them if they could leave. It sounds reasonable. It makes perfect sense. And yet, every one of us knows it’s false and does not correlate to reality.

2. We put a high value on confessions, and we think we can tell when someone is offering us an honest or dishonest confession, even though we really can’t. And the more we believe we can, the more likely we can’t.

So, all a martyr has to do is make a confession. Right off the bat, some people will believe the martyr, simply because people believe confessions. Further, even if it’s a lie, a lot of people won’t be able to tell, but will feel confident they know the confession is true. In one article, it noted that some people will convict on a confession of guilt, even when confronted with compelling evidence of innocence. Our brains simply like to believe confessions. And the apparent validity of the confession and whether or not it correlates to the evidence is, to an uncomfortable degree, irrelevant to our brains.

Simply stated, a who
le lot of people tend to believe what other people confess—too much and for horrible reasons—even for no reason at all.

In the end, though I have one rhetorical question about the martyr argument: What would be the point of any Christian dying for the truth? According to the stories, God knows whether you believe or not—doesn’t He? Would merciful Jesus condemn you to hell for avoiding torture by lying to evil men—and going on to spread his Word and save others, later? If you believe, repent, confess and ask for forgiveness—isn’t salvation guaranteed? “Not martyring yourself,” and “lying” are not unpardonable sins. What is the gain of martyrdom in Christianity? How, in the world did that catch on?